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Coercion Claims In Border Drug Smuggling Cases

December 12, 2012 1:11 p.m.


Jeremy Warren, criminal attorney representing Eugenio Velazquez

Octavio Rodriguez, USD's Trans-Border Institute

Victor Clark Alfaro, Director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights, lecturer, SDSU's Center for Latin American Studies

Related Story: Do Coercion Claims In Border Drug Smuggling Cases Signal A New Trend?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: A prominent Mexican architect was sentenced in San Diego this week to six months in federal prison for drug smuggling. But it could have been much worse. Eugenio Velasquez faced a minimum mandatory sentence of ten years for smuggling 12 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. he claims he was threatened by drug smugglers to smuggle the drugs. My guests, attorney Jeremy Warren who represents Eugenio Velasquez. Welcome to the program.

WARREN: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Octavio Rodriguez is with the discomfort of San Diego's transporter institute. Welcome.

RODRIGUEZ: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Victor Clark Alfaro is director of Tijuana's center for human rights and center for Latin American studies.

ALFARO: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Jeremy, Eugenio Velasquez did not fit the profile of a drug smuggler.

WARREN: Yes, you're absolutely correct. He's in his early 50s, he's an architect, an American citizen, born on this side of the border, lives here, but much of his life is in Mexico. He's designed some of the most iconic buildings in Tijuana, primarily the one I think people who have been there would know would be the cube addition to the museum in central Tijuana. But the police headquarters that's being refurnished now. He's the designer. The or lady of Guadalupe cathedral.

CAVANAUGH: What did he say about how he got involved in this scheme?

WARREN: It's quite an extraordinary story. And sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. It does appear to be something you might see in a movie, but this is what happened. He had a client who had eye ranch outside of Tijuana who hired him to design a facade for the ranch. As many people have over the last several year, they got to chatting, and they were discussing the violence in the region. And Mr. Velasquez expressed concerns for his safety based on things that had happened to people he'd known, friend, family, neighbors. And the man craftily told him oh, I can take care of you, I'm connected, kiprovide you some protection. Simple as this, you just call me when you cross the border in the morning on your way to work, call me on your way home after work, and I'll make sure you're protected. He did this for a while. A friend of his got into the same scenario. They thought it was a favor. Well, one day after a couple months of this, the man called up the doctor and doctor Velasquez and said he needed to see them. He got them in a car, drove around Tijuana, pulled over and said this protection I've been providing, it comes at a price. I need $40,000 today. Well, they didn't have the money. They were shocked about this. They said what are you talking about? The man's tone changed significantly. He pulled out a gun and he said I'm not kidding around, I know where you live, I know where your families live, this is going to happen. And when they said they didn't have the money, he said, well, there's another way. You can drive drugs. And these two professionals looked at each other in shock. Ultimately came down to a coin flip, and Mr. Velasquez lost.

CAVANAUGH: From the earlier stories written about this prosecution, it didn't sound as if law enforcement believed what Mr. Velasquez was saying. What do you think turned them around?

WARREN: Fortunately for Mr. Velasquez, there was a lot of corroboration to what happened. And mind you, he did plead guilty, and we can get into some of the reasons behind that. Although everyone I think recognizes that he was pressured and coerced into doing this, he still had a choice to make at the border, he could have told hem, and he didn't. He's responsible. But we had the medical doctor who came forward, was interviewed by law enforcement and gave a incredible explanation that verified what happened. Mr. Velasquez's offices were raided by our people, there was a burglary of all their computers. So there were a number of incidents that happened that corroborated and verified what happened.

CAVANAUGH: Victor Clark, do you believe coercion from drug smugglers is a trend?

ALFARO: Yes, after talking in the last six or seven years for a couple of dozens of families whose relatives were victims in talking to some of the victims who are in those circumstances, it's a fact that it's happening. These people are not new. We know cases probably ten years ago. But it is not a new phenomenon on the border. People who have been extorted by the drug cartels or different levels of the organized crime in Tijuana to cross drugs to the U.S. side is not a new phenomenon. It has been happening probably for years.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of a person would drug criminals look for for someone that they would target for this and they would try to threaten into bringing drugs across the border?

ALFARO: We have seen lower, middle, and high class. Of they are touching all level was society. Those with cards who cross to the U.S. side, with students, juvenile, they are offering their -- they threat everybody. They don't care a, low class, high class, middle class, everybody is included.

CAVANAUGH: Jeremy, the case of a young opera singer, Maximino Melchor, it ended quite differently than the case we've been talking about. His attorney says he was propositioned and threatened by drug dealers in Tijuana but law enforcement did not believe it. He was sentenced to 9 years. How difficult is it to bring a story like the one your client had to a prosecutor and to have them take it seriously?

WARREN: It's extremely difficult. Everyone recognizes that this can happen. Drug smugglers anywhere, but in Mexico, it's a business. And they want to make money. And if they can get people to do it without having to pay them, they're going to do it. They're going to use every method they can, whether it's tunnels, submarines, we've seen catapults where they've thrown drugs across the border. They're going to use any technique possible. And if they can use fear and threats, they can do that too. What makes it extraordinarily hard to present is that the law enforcement tends to believe that -- and the jury instruction that people are told, that you have to at the first available opportunity turn yourself in. You also have to have an immediate fear. It can't be a threat in the future. It has to be almost literally that there's a gun to your head. So they recognize that there can be coercion, pressures, but the general law enforcement perspective is you make a decision, you agreed to do it, you could have come to us for help, and you didn't. That's it.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Octavio, tell us, how have people been used as mules, couriers transporting drugs across the border.

TINSKY: I think they just mentioned, mules have been used to smuggle drugs into the United States for a long time. Sometimes they're paid for doing that, and therefore they are aware of this, and some other case, they're victims of extortion. Now we're witnessing a different kind of mule, which they call blind mules. It means people are not aware they're carrying drugs across the border because they attach packages into the bottom of the cars, and therefore they don't know they're carrying drugs.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And the only way you know this is because some of them have been caught. What happens to them when border agents find these drugs?

TINSKY: Well, the problem here is that smuggling drugs is a crime. And it doesn't matter if you know it or don't know it. If you're aware of -- even just attempting to cross the border with illegal substances, it's a crime.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Jeremy, obviously if somebody has no idea that somebody put something under their car, they may have to deal with law enforcement a little bit to explain the situation. But I would imagine they would not generally be prosecuted.

WARREN: No, I disagree. I kind of agree and disagree with everybody here. Blind mules, which is a term I don't care for that much, it's just people. It's you or me. Somebody who's in a situation where whether by trick or any other way, someone has put drugs in the car they're driving, and they come to the border without knowing it. That's been going on forever, for a long time, for the same reasons. Why pay someone to do something if you can get it done for free? Why risk that someone who knows something about your drug organization when he or she is going through a very sophisticated border with X-rays and everything else could get caught and have information to provide to law enforcement about them, why risk that someone that you're paying money to would be extremely nervous at the boarder? We see a lot of that. There are a lot of reasons why you would want to use someone who didn't know, and you could take advantage of it. A husband who has to drive a pound of heroin across the border, they might throw it in their wife's car under the seat. There are all different contexts. Technically, you're not guilty of any crime if you didn't knowingly bring the drugs across the border. But just like in the case of coercion, it's very difficult to prove. The burden is on you. You get caught, they interrogate you, and you say I didn't know, I didn't know. They don't believe you. For a long time law enforcement's perspective has been everybody who's caught at the border driving a car that drugs are found in it is guilty, they know. One last thing in that regard, that's been a big, big change. Last year, we had a series of cases where people were caught at the border with drugs, and during thirds requirement interrogation, they told the border inspectors I responded to an advertisement in the newspaper. I went to an interview, I got hired, I thought I was bringing some paper, they gave me some papers to cross the border. This happened with such frequency that now in every single package of discovery we get in a border bus case, they include information about advertisements. So for the first time, the government has actually recognized that people have been and can be used as what we call blind mules.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Victor, what about those that say they smuggle drugs because they were afraid, they were coerced to do so? They were afraid for their own lives or family's lives? Are the drug cartels in Baja still powerful enough to inspire that kind of fear?

ALFARO: It's not only the ones in Baja California. The Arellano, the new generation of the brothers. But they're not the only ones who operate in that way that can be a small group of people organized as drug traffickers. And it can go to the big ones. So I have seen cases of small groups who threat people without paying them to cross drugs to the U.S. side without telling them how to cross the drugs, how to see in the eyes of the customs, in a very professional coded way. And I have seen other cases where they teach the mules how to cross if they are pedestrians. But also I want to say that considering there are more than 50,000 vehicles crossing daily to the U.S. side, and more than 25,000 pedestrians crossing through the port of entry, in this moment, the organized crime according to our sources have a great opportunity to cross more drugs to the U.S. side because the port of entry is in a process of remodeling. And before that, the number of vehicles sent to secondary inspection were no more than 1,000 vehicles. Now as far as I know, the capacity have diminished just for a moment.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh, right.

ALFARO: So this is a great opportunity are in drug traffickers to cross drugs in many different ways, using behind mule, or using mules. And if somebody threats you, knowing the history of violence in our country, and what happened in Tijuana until recently, obviously you are going to believe them, if somebody tells you if you don't cross these drug, I'm going to kill your family, you know these people are talking seriously after knowing that 60,000 people has been killed in our country. You know they are talking seriously.

CAVANAUGH: Jeremy, you brought us through the whole story of Velasquez and how he was propositioned, targeted, how he lost the coin toss and actually had to smuggle the drugs here or felt he did. But you also said that he made some bad decisions. Tell us what bad decisions he made along the way.

WARREN: It's very easy for us after the fact and not in the circumstance where you're fearing for your life say what should have happened. But what should have happened and what made it a poor decision is that he went through with it. The reality is that they're not going to -- once the drug smugglers sink their hooks into you, they're not going to let you go. They're not going to say you do it for us one time, and that's the end of it. Obviously they're going to do it until you get arrested. So the smart decision as crazy as it sounds, you know what? You're going to have to kill me. Otherwise no matter what, you're in a horrible situation. They may be bluffing and you're probably better off calling their bluff. Short of that, going to the authorities. If you don't trust the Mexican authorities, go to the American authorities. Even though we have had some corruption on this side of the border, by and large, you can go there and get some protection. They can't help you in Mexico. But these guys are looking for the path of least resistance. If you put up some resistance, they might kill you. But they might also move onto the next guy.